53 Million Gallons Of Wastewater Flushes Daily Into Hawaii’s Waters — How One Local Non-Profit Is Working To Fix This

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Water quality is a huge issue here in Hawaii — we have a population that thrives in our beautiful oceans … and yet we have one of the highest rates of cesspools in the US, which means we also have some serious water quality issues. This affects our citizens, our reefs, and the ecology of the oceans.

What’s a Cesspool, and What’s the Issue?

If you’re not familiar, a cesspool is simply a hole in the ground into which all black water and gray water flows. Black water is waste water that’s contaminated with sewage (toilet and kitchen water). Grey water is everything else in the house (like sinks and washing machines). As you can imagine, huge piles of untreated sewage buried underground can lead to lots of issues during big rains, or when the land is inundated with water via storm surge or big swells. The contaminated water then flows to groundwater, streams, bays, and eventually the ocean.

Once flushed out of the ocean, harmful bacteria can harbor in reefs and in the sand, and when new water comes to move it around, during a swell or rainstorm, it can further spread the bacteria. Untreated sewage can also leak into groundwater, causing damage without storms.

Not only is untreated sewage bad for humans, it’s terrible for our local environment. Bacteria from our waste flows onto reefs and creates a high level of nitrogen in the water, which can lead to overgrowth of algae and make it difficult for coral to thrive — this is the same issue we see from synthetic fertilizer runoff in other bodies of water, known as “dead zones.” State Representative Chris Lee is quoted in Hawaii Business Magazine saying, “In Hawaii, we are the best example of a developed nation which still has some of the worst sewage disposal and contamination problems that have been affecting our freshwater supply, our streams and nearshore marine environments.”

Pua’ena Point, a North Shore small wave break. Image from Surfrider Foundation — Oahu Chapter.

Adding to this concern is the lack of oversight from the state. The Department of Health only conducts weekly testing of ocean water quality, which many believe is woefully inadequate. Hawaii is one of the only states where the state doesn’t monitor during “brown water” events — Brown Water Advisories (BWAs) happen during major rain events when bacteria level skyrocket in local streams and in the ocean. Why doesn’t the state test during these critically dangerous BWAs? The argument is that the state knows it is contaminated, and thus does not see the need to test. However, change is coming: there is a new bill in the legislature that will require testing of water quality during brown-water events — a welcome relief for this surfer girl and many of us who swim, surf, snorkel, and play in the waters.

There have been many events in my two decades here where locals wouldn’t go near the oceans, because even though there was an “all clear” from the state, many of us in the ocean community don’t trust the state’s clearance and could see there was a problem. I look forward to seeing this change as soon as possible.

Why Do We Still Have Cesspools in Hawaii?

Cesspools are really prevalent here across the islands. There are about 88,000 registered (and likely many more not yet accounted for), flushing out more than 53 million gallons of untreated wastewater each day, according to Stuart Coleman, activist, author, and founder of WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations (wai means water in Hawaiian). He explained in an interview last week that because most of the State is zoned as rural, many properties don’t have access to sewer lines. Even as our population and housing density has increased, there has not been a push to upgrade the systems until now.

In the United States, new cesspool construction was banned decades ago, but the State of Hawaii allowed new cesspools to be built until a few years ago, and the whole state is lagging when it comes to upgrades. The cost of replacing a cesspool hovers around $20,000, and even with a $10,000 tax credit to upgrade, the necessary upgrades are out of reach for most island residents. The state is not yet clear how these necessary infrastructure upgrades are going to be paid for.

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This is an issue for all of the islands, and yet each has their own specific problems. Big Island is too volcanic to filter out solids. In upcountry Maui, the homes on cesspools are leaking into the water wells further down the hill. On Oahu, where I live, the cesspools are in low-lying areas prone to a lot of rain and inundation as seas get higher due to climate change, especially during the highest high tides of the year, known as King Tides. Some cesspool-dense areas are lower-income areas while others are in some high-income areas — some of the nicest neighborhoods on Oahu and Maui, with homes valued at many millions of dollars, are still on cesspools.

Water Quality is the #1 Concern

Coleman recently left his role as Hawaii Regional Manager of Surfrider Foundation, a post he had for nearly a decade, with years previous to that spent as a volunteer for the organization. He says that in his years at Surfrider Foundation, water quality was often a lower priority, though it became the number one priority over the past 6 years. Surfrider was instrumental in passing three new laws to protect water quality, including a bill to ban new construction of cesspools, and another that offered a tax credit of $10,000 to homeowners who upgraded or removed their cesspool.

In 2018, the Cesspool Conversation Working Group was founded by the Hawaii Department of Health, and Coleman remains a member of this Working Group. He soon realized there was a clear opportunity for a single entity to focus on this problem, and so he began his new organization with the help of friend and business partner John Anner, who created an organization that installed over 300,000 toilets in Southeast Asia. WAI is set up as a non-profit in order to maximize its effectiveness with grants and partnerships.

WAI is working to make these changes happen quickly in the islands. WAI has five pillars it is working on in 2020:

  1. New Technology: It seeks to find and promote new circular waste technology (more on that below).
  2. Financing: The first year has been funded by The Harold K. L. Castle Foundation and Hawaii Leadership Forum, and WAI is actively looking for new ways to fund this project. He hopes to set up partnerships with other groups to seek funding from federal agencies like the EPA & Dept. of Agriculture, while also seeking support from state and county funds. Ideally, they can work together to pool resources to help homeowners and communities in low-income areas and homes in high-priority areas.
  3. Education/Outreach: There are a lot of people who don’t like to talk about poo (I’m not one of them!), and so there are still lots of people who don’t yet fully understand the importance and urgency of this water supply and water quality issue.
  4. Policy: WAI has worked to get 8 new bills in front of the state legislature this year!
  5. Pilot Projects: Before the end of 2020, the WAI team is planning on having at least one pilot project featuring new waste treatment technologies.

Big Changes in Waste Management in Hawaii & the World

Mismanagement of waste is a huge issue in countries around the world, especially in a lot of “developing” nations. The Gates Foundation has made waste management a huge priority — to the tune of about $200 million, according to Hawaii Business Magazine. Last year, Rep. Lee and Coleman traveled to Beijing, China, to attend the Reinvented Toilet Expo, where they saw innovations in toilet technology – which Coleman likes to point out has not changed much in about 100 years – until now.

Reinvented Toilet Expo
Stuart Coleman, left, and Representative Chris Lee, far right, at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, China, in 2019.

Some of these new toilet technologies can separate solid and liquids, and turn the solid into a functional waste (#humanure) that’s free from pathogens. Some systems generate in-home energy, and others are closed loop systems that recycle the toilet water. Brian Arbogast, Director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program at the Gates Foundation, is quoted in Hawaii Business as saying: “The reinvented toilet is basically its own treatment plant. It is inexpensive to buy and easy to operate on a day-to-day basis that doesn’t take a lot of energy. And you don’t need a sewer system.”

While it remains to be seen exactly how all of this is going to take place, it’s clear that this movement has a lot of momentum. Not only are we seeing more awareness of this issue globally, but there is increased interest in improved technology that’s already available. Coleman sees lots of progress in both innovation and local action. Coleman says this is the goal: “We want to host more convening to bring cutting edge research to introduce this new technology to create momentum.”

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Andrea Bertoli

I'm a marketing and sales professional focused on mission-driven businesses. I'm a journalist, green investor, wellness educator, surfer, and yogi. Find delicious food and wellness stuff on my Instagram @VibrantWellness.

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